Poetry in Motion: An 'If Beale Street Could Talk' film review
by Will Lindus
It’s no big secret that we’re big fans of 2016’s Moonlight here on the Movie Bears Podcast. Not only was it our consensus selection as the best film of that year, but I’d argue that its artistry, its exploration of intersectionality, and its impact on modern queer cinema places it, at the very least, in the discussion for best film of the decade. These are high accolades, to be sure, and I’m very aware how they border on hyperbole. But it isn’t just myself and my co-hosts who love this film; Moonlight was a smash success, making back more than 15 times its production budget, earning critical and popular praise, and taking home the Academy Award for Best Picture.
While Moonlight isn’t Barry Jenkins’s first film - seriously, check out Medicine for Melancholy if you haven’t done so already - it is the film that catapulted his name into the public conversation, and any subsequent film will inevitably have huge shoes to fill. Fortunately, we can all breathe a sigh of relief; If Beale Street Could Talk is a very worthy follow up film, with the same focus on blending artistry, effective storytelling, and real-world stakes that made Moonlight so special.
Based on the novel by same name by James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk follows the story of Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) in 1970s Harlem. The two grew up together, sharing baths as young children, sharing family dinners as they grow older, all based on the friendship shared by their fathers. As they reach adulthood, however, Tish realizes that Fonny has fallen in love with her and that she shares these feelings for him as well. Unfortunately, Fonny is accused of a crime he did not commit and is locked away, pending a trial with the deck stacked against him, while Tish learns that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child.
The racial profiling and unjust legal system that has Fonny railroaded merely for the crime of being black reflects an inhumane and hopeless world. While this is the backdrop for Fonny and Tish’s struggles and drives many of the narrative points of the story, Jenkins wisely chooses to make his story one about humanity and about hope. Tish carries a quiet stoicism that grants her maturity beyond her 19 years, traits cultivated by her parents and her older sister, who urges Tish to ‘unbow your head, sister’ when Tish begins to doubt herself. Tish is determined to help Fonny’s quest for innocence, all while working a steady job at a perfume counter and preparing to raise their unborn child.
Jenkins is the perfect vessel for this James Baldwin story; Baldwin’s writing is like poetry, silky and smooth in its delivery but carrying with each syllable the undeniable essence of truth. If Beale Street Could Talk has no visual gimmicks to distract from the power of its narrative, but it does contain a floating camera technique which helps the focus flow from character to character within each shot. This technique helps to connect the characters in a way that traditional shot-reverse shot filmmaking doesn’t always achieve; these characters share the same space, the same struggles, the same essence of blackness which helps define (in part) who they are and how the relate with one another.
KiKi Layne makes her film debut here as shy but powerful Tish, and there is a raw, unkempt energy that she channels to help add texture to her performance. She is tasked not just with the heavily melodramatic scenes of the film, but also with the beautiful prose narration voiceover that weaves its way through the film. If it weren’t for Regina King, who steals every scene she is in as Trish’s determined and supportive mother Sharon, KiKi’s performance would have likely been the highlight of the film.
Bottom Line: If Beale Street Can Talk is a highlight of the 2018 film year. It finds the humanity of its characters in a world that feels cold and inhumane, utilizing the breath taking writing of James Baldwin, a powerful score, and intelligent filmmaking principles to craft something small and personal that speaks volumes about the world we live in. We don’t deserve Barry Jenkins, but we should be thankful we have him.
5 out of 5 Bear Paws